Experts Track Data to Reduce Police Violence

A five-year research study headed by Seattle University shows that detailed tracking of law enforcement use of force incidents can reduce injuries and racial disparities. However no single federal or state agency tracks all that data.

NBC Universal, Inc.

Some prominent Bay Area law enforcement officials now say that in wake of the tragic death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, all law enforcement departments nationwide should be required to turn over data showing how often their officers use force to make arrests or otherwise control the public.

Currently no single agency, federal or state, tracks when, where, and how police use force to make arrests or who they use the force on. More than a dozen law enforcement officials agreed with data scientists at Seattle University in telling NBC Bay Area that centralized tracking of police use of force incidents can protect both police officers and the people they serve.

Currently the FBI only collects data on deadly use of force from individual police departments and sheriff’s offices from around the country, some 18,000 different agencies in all. Providing data on the deadly use of force to the FBI is voluntary.

While some individual agencies do their own analysis of use of force data experts and social scientists say those individual or private analyses can be restrictive because they only have one department’s data and the sample size can be small and therefore the conclusions are non-instructive. In other cases, experts say other law enforcement departments don’t analyze or even collect this specific data at all.

Those experts say that should change.

They say police officials can learn about unrecognized bias and more effective techniques, achieving better, less violent results by precisely tracking each use of force incident.

“It's one of the most critical pieces of information we can collect about the police,” said Dr. Matthew Hickman, Chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at Seattle University. We really do need systematic data collection to help establish the reality of police use of force.”

The Investigative Unit

Have a tip for The Investigative Unit? Call 1-888-996-TIPS.

NBC Bay Area: We Investigate

Critics fear PG&E's aging Diablo Canyon power plant costs may be twice the initial estimates

“With these data, we can start to understand … how use of force incidents evolve,” said Dr. Hickman. And we can learn “what are the characteristics of those incidents that are more or less likely to lead to injury. And hopefully lead to better policies and training so that we can try to minimize injury.”

Because of that in 2015, Dr. Hickman teamed with a private company, Police Strategies LLC, also based in the Seattle area, to begin tracking data, voluntarily provided by police departments from around the country, showing precisely how, when and where police use force.

“It [use of force data collection] should be nationwide,” said Dr. Hickman. “And that's really the shame of all this, is that the federal government has been required for 25 years to collect data on the use of excessive force by police and report on it annually. And they've never done that.”

According to US Bureau of Justice Statistics an estimated 53.5 million people nationwide had contact with a police officer between 2014 and 2015, events including everything from home welfare checks to emergency calls, from traffic stops to car accidents, from criminal arrests to shootings. 

The US Justice Department estimates only a small percentage of those interactions between police and the public involve use of force by the officers, either non-lethal or lethal.

Except for lethal use of force, no one really knows details about exactly how often, what kind of force and who the force is used against.

Dr. Hickman and his team want to change that, but right now, only 88 different police agencies out of an estimated 18,000 agencies nationwide, voluntarily provide their use of force data to this research project. Among those are Bay Area police departments in Daly City, San Jose, Capitola and, most recently, Vallejo.

“There's no standardization either statewide or certainly not nationally,” said Bob Scales, founding partner and current CEO of Police Strategies LLC. “You can't have an evidence-based policy or evidence-based training if you have no data to back it up.”

“Many agencies have put their officers through de-escalation training, but without the data to see a ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the training, we don't know if the training has had any impact on how officers behave and how they use force,” Scales said.

Scales comes from a strong law enforcement background and perspective. He served as a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County, was the Assistant Director for Public Safety for the City of Seattle and was the Director of Government Affairs for the Seattle City Attorney before leaving to build his start-up Police Strategies, LLC.

“What we do is we help agencies essentially unlock all of that data information and then we help, we analyze it and then we provide it back to the departments,” said Scales who also served as the Compliance Coordinator for the Seattle Police Department during its implementation of a Consent Decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve allegations of misuse of force.

One example of data’s impact on public safety: separate research conducted by the “Police Use of Force Project” shows that police departments which ban choke holds as acceptable techniques by their officers show significant reduction the number of use of force incidents that end in death for the public. 

“Some agencies train their officers how to use this technique. And you have some agencies that prohibit the technique outright,” Scales said. “So we have this huge gamut of acceptable practices by police departments [around the country] for the same technique.”

“And [for] the agencies that do allow it, [the data shows] it's a very effective technique,” Scales told NBC Bay Area. “It has risks. It has dangers. The Minneapolis situation was not an acceptable use of that technique.”

“We banned the chokehold … after, you know, after the unfortunate incident in New York with Eric Garner,” said San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia.

Chief Garcia says his department began giving Seattle University and Police Strategies, LLC their use of force data in 2015 to better track what his officers were doing right and what they could improve.

“To be able to see a transparent view of ‘this is what your officers are doing.’ ‘This is when they had to use force,’ ‘why they had to use force’ and ‘who they're using force on.’  I think that's incredibly important,” Chief Garcia told NBC Bay Area. And, you know, it’s about time that I think (this data collection) is legislated really not just in California, but throughout” the country.

Because of what the historical data showed about using baton and other hard objects to subdue suspect, Chief Garcia and his police training officers began asking his patrol officers to use tasers more frequently to subdue unruly people rather using than batons or nightsticks. 

While tasers remain controversial, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area where critics say police officers tend to deploy Tasers too quickly to de-escalate volatile situations, sometimes, with deadly consequences.  

But the data collected during the last five years shows clearly that in San Jose, actual injuries to the public are down where tasers replaced batons and nightsticks.

“We’re seeing fewer fractures and serious bodily injuries because they were using the Taser rather than a baton,” said Scales.

The Seattle University/Police Strategies LL” data analysis also shows San Jose Police Department’s saw use of force incidents dropped 13.4% from 2015 to 2019, the time period that the tracking has been taking place.  And some racial disparities appear to be diminishing during the same time period as well.  Five years ago, when San Jose police arrested a Hispanic man, there was an 11% greater chance they would use force than when they arrested a white man. Today that Hispanic person has a 2% lower chance than a white person of seeing force used on him by a police officer.

The same goes for Black and Asian suspects. The percentage who experienced force matched the percentage of their arrest population.

“We have a lot more work to do. But I think the expectation is that we are moving that needle in that, you know, that this tool absolutely helps us do that,” Chief Garcia said.

The Police Use of Force Project, agrees with those numbers, but still gives San Jose an “F” grade for its deadly use of force noting that in 2018 Hispanics were 3.4 times more likely to have deadly force used against them than white people.

Right now, experts say the biggest problem with trying to improve police/public interaction outcomes is that there's not enough data analytics in enough police departments nationwide to say what works and what techniques are effective.

While some individual agencies do their own analysis of use of force data, Scales and Hickman say those analysis are restrictive because they only have one department’s data and the sample size can be small and non-instructive. Other departments don’t analyze or even collect this specific data at all.

Scales agrees with Chief Garcia in saying that only if law enforcement departments are required to turn over these specific data points tracking details of their officers’ use of force incidents will real police reform take place.

 “You shouldn't implement any reforms if you're if you're unable to measure the impacts,” said Scales.It may be good training. It may be bad training or maybe a waste of money. We don't know without the data.”

Contact Us